On the surface, the difference between rubs and marinades is obvious: one is dry and one is wet (though there can be a little overlap). But do you know when it’s best to use one over the other? And what other tips should you keep in mind?
The beauty of grilling is that you can take just about any protein, give it a hearty smack of salt and pepper, and leave it at that. The telltale grill marks are enough to impart flavor like a branded seal of approval: certified delicious. But maybe you’ve graduated beyond Grill Flavor 101. You fully understand the inherent beauty of keeping it simple, but life isn’t always uncomplicated, and you’re thinking that some sugar, or spice, or umami might be nice.
Sauces are great to finish a dish, but you’re looking for flavor that goes a little deeper. Like, all the way deep. Rubs and marinades are two ways to amplify the flavor of that which you would apply to the grill, or to any heat source, really, to tremendous effect. But what is the difference between a rub and a marinade?
A rub is an application of flavor at surface level that doesn’t penetrate the meat too deeply or alter the cellular structure, but will season the protein and can add a fantastic crust or bark. Sugar, which is typically incorporated in a rub, caramelizes during the cooking process to create this effect.
You will see a lot of recipes for “dry” rubs, consisting only of dried ingredients like sugar, salt, and spices. Wet rubs also exist, where a small amount of oil, juice, honey, or other liquid is involved that turns the rub into more of a paste. Either way, the method of application is right there in the name: rub. You’re going to generously massage the seasoning blend onto the surface of the meat. You can let it sit for anywhere from a few hours to overnight, but since it won’t penetrate the meat that much, you don’t have to—ergo, rubs are a great way to add quick flavor to whatever you want to grill without having to plan ahead.
Usual suspects in rubs for grilling, regardless of protein, include brown sugar, salt, paprika, cayenne, and mustard, to create the beautiful sweet/savory tension with just a bit of heat and a dash of umami. But just about any dried herb or spice can function in a rub, including unusual suspects such as cinnamon, coffee, and ginger.
To begin experimenting with your own rubs, start with a 1:1 ratio where one part is sugar and the other part is a combo of salt and other spices. Check out a few of our own recipes that highlight the versatility of a good rub combined with grill power:
Grilled Country Style Pork Ribs
Ancho chili and chipotle chili tease out the heat and a little smokiness with this excellent barbecue rub. Along with the typical salt and sugar, garlic powder and onion powder give a deep savoriness, and cumin is on the scene to brighten it all up a bit. Tremendous flavor and balance in only seven ingredients; you’ll hardly even need any barbecue sauce. Get our Grilled Country Style Pork Ribs recipe.
Smoky Rubbed Chicken Wings with Honey, Bourbon, and Molasses Sauce
Truly excellent chicken wings require a three-prong approach: a rub to add flavor to the chicken itself, a grill to add char, and a sticky sauce to bring it all together. Here’s a rub (ay, there’s the rub?) that is not having anything to do with simplicity: 14 ingredients come together for insanely complex flavor, including sweet smoked paprika, ginger, allspice, and celery salt. Get our Smoky Rubbed Chicken Wings with Honey, Bourbon, and Molasses Sauce recipe.
Coffee-Rubbed Grilled Pork Tenderloin
Grilling isn’t just for single-serving portions, and coffee isn’t just for breakfast, as is evidenced here. This simple rub lets coffee, in the form of espresso powder, take the flavor driver’s seat, with a boost from smoked paprika. The result is a deep, roasty quality that can only be enhanced by those gorgeous grill marks. Get our Coffee-Rubbed Grilled Pork Tenderloin recipe.
If rubs are like massages, marinades are more like immersion baths. If it ain’t liquid, it ain’t a marinade.
Marinades, along with imparting flavor, are also going to tenderize the meat by the inclusion of acid, and add fat via oil. Whereas sugar often defines what makes a rub function like it does, both in terms of flavor and texture, for a marinade it is the acid, whether in the form of citrus juice, vinegar, or Worcestershire sauce.
Marinades may also include all of the components that rubs do, including sugar, but acid is key. Marinades work especially well for tougher cuts that need some breaking down, but that you want to cook quickly at high heat, such a skirt steak. You can soak most proteins overnight, but marinades for more delicate items such as white meat chicken or shrimp should be used carefully: Too much acid for too long will start to denature the protein, rendering it gummy before cooking begins. (I’m all for a tart ceviche, but maybe not with chicken.)
Because the liquid of a marinade can move within the cell structure, marinades have the ability to get the flavor in a little deeper, but are not likely to create any significant external texture. The marinade itself isn’t going to follow the meat onto the grill (at least not entirely) and so can include some stronger flavored components like rosemary, bay leaf, or whole crushed garlic cloves, which are either inedible or have a tendency to burn during high heat cooking.
Resist the urge to continue to baste with the marinade throughout the cooking process, or to apply it as a sauce. Marinades should be discarded, or at least boiled, after initial use, since they’ve been hosting the raw protein. Consider these three recipes for some insight into the function of marinades:
Grilled Chicken Breasts with Balsamic Rosemary Marinade
Balsamic vinegar and soy sauce do the sweet and salty heavy lifting in this recipe, nuanced by the piquancy of garlic and the natural earthiness of rosemary. Make this your quick-and-easy go-to summer weeknight grilling recipe and you’ll hardly even notice you’re eating healthy in the process through all of that flavor. Get our Grilled Chicken Breasts with Balsamic Rosemary Marinade recipe.
Easy Seared Flank Steak
Here’s a marinade that brings the umami overload with minimal effort. Worcestershire and mustard go hand in hand to deliver a straightforward steak into summer legend status, all the more so for having potential to become killer steak sandwiches in the days to follow. Get our Easy Seared Flank Steak recipe.
Easy Fish Tacos
All the flavors you want in the taco itself—lime, cumin, garlic, and chili—come together for an easy marinade that allow the fish to sing on the grill before nestling into its rightful place in the tortilla. Try to tell me this isn’t better than the fried fish version. Get our Easy Fish Tacos recipe.